Thursday, September 08, 2005

Fighting injustice

Yesterday, the California state legislature passed a measure that would increase California's minimum wage, which currently stands at $6.75. It would go to a minimum of $7.75 over the next two years. [note: the link works as of 9/8/05, but the LA Times site tends to require a paid membership to reach it's archives.]

However, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has already suggested that he is likely to veto this measure, as he has already done on a similar measure.

At the current minimum wage, a worker who works full-time will earn $14,040 a year. That works out to $1170 a month. The Federal Government defines "affordable" housing as not costing more than 30% of a worker's income. (This definition comes from the PDF file dated July 2001 put out by the Institute for the Study of Homelessness and Poverty at the Weingart Center, which also contains many other useful statistics) There are very few one-person studio apartments to be had in California for $351 a month (30% of $1170), where the housing market is often extremely tight. Now imagine that this worker has to support a family! In the Los Angeles area (which does not have a minimum wage any higher than the CA state minimum in most cases, although the city of LA itself does have a slightly higher minimum), it is difficult to find a two bedroom apartment for less than $900 a month, which is well above what our hypothetical worker can afford, even if the spouse also has a full-time minimum wage job.

And this situation hasn't even addressed what is being done with the kids when both parents are working! And many low-wage earners are supporting single parent (usually the mother) households, either having to work multiple jobs or trying to find better wages, both of which are often difficult when trying to take care of the kids. And it goes without saying that minimum wage jobs tend not to provide child care.

Nor have we started discussing the rising prices of gasoline, which are nearing $3 a gallon in my area. Having checked my own personal records, only one year ago, it was still below $2 a gallon! How will our hypothetical worker (and spouse) get to their place of employment so they can work at their minimum wage jobs?

Although critics of wage increases often suggest that "low-wage jobs [are] held by part-time workers and teenagers, the budget group's analysis said 59% of people earning less than $7.74 an hour worked at least 35 hours a week and 60% were at least 25 years old." (Quote from the LA Times article linked above. The wage used here reflect all amounts below the proposed increase, and not only the current minimum wage.) Critics often say that raising the minimum wage would cause businesses to cut jobs to save costs, but this conclusion is far from certain. In fact, some studies suggest that this is, in fact, a myth, and that raising the minimum wage does not, in fact, result in such job losses. (See this Wikipedia article for more information, including both supporting and conflicting data. The point is that the results are far from being as clear as wage increase opponents would have you think. Click on the "debate" link if you just want to go straight to the most relevant part.)

The Governor has offered some concessions, but is holding firm against the part of the measure that proposes indexing the minimum wage to inflation, claiming that "it takes away the government's ability to be flexible to the state's economic indicators." Does he really want to claim that it's better to allow the wage to slip further and further backward in actual buying power? Florida, Washington, and Oregon have all successfully indexed their minimum wages to inflation, and all have met or surpassed California's minimum wage, which was once the highest in the nation, as a result. This is despite the fact that California has a higher cost of living than any of those states. (Scroll down to the image entitled "Composite Cost of Living Index" at this link for a graphical representation of cost-of-living for all 50 States in America.) In fact, if we really want to get political, it has been argued that by indexing the minimum wage to inflation, Republicans remove a major issue from the Democratic platform. And then politicians wouldn't have to deal with the far larger (and therefore more impacting upon the businesses Republicans tend to support) increases in the minimum wage that occur when it is raised only every few years. And just think of the time saved by not arguing about minimum wage that politicians could spend on other issues!

But perhaps most important for Governor Schwarzenegger, this kind of measure enjoys widespread popular support. Businesses may not like it, but if Schwarzenegger is truly the kind of "people's governor" that he claims to be, he should pay attention to the outcry of people trying to make ends meet in our state, where the cost of living is truly outrageous. This is a major justice issue, and it is time that it is treated as such.

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